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Officials debate spying history in Iran

Many informants were killed or imprisoned in 1990s

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
United States

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Dozens of CIA informants in Iran were killed or imprisoned in the early 1990s when the Iranian government discovered the U.S. intelligence operation, knowledgeable former U.S. officials told CNN on Saturday.

Iranian counter-intelligence agents uncovered the U.S. spy program, set up at the request of the Pentagon, the former officials said.

The events were first reported Saturday in the Los Angeles Times, which quoted unnamed former CIA officials.

Former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, whose recent congressional testimony sparked interest in the failed operation, told CNN on Saturday that the network of informants referred to in the Times article was "essentially wiped out" by "carelessness" at the CIA, though he did not know the details or exact timing of the incident.

He said he had heard about it after he left government from people who had first-hand knowledge of the operation. Perle stepped down from the Defense Policy Board last year.

On February 2, Perle, a critic of the CIA, told the House Select Committee on Intelligence of "the terrible setback that we suffered in Iran a few years ago, when in a display of unbelievably careless management we put pressure on agents operating in Iran to report with greater frequency and didn't provide improved communications channels for them to do it."

"The Iranian intelligence authorities quickly saw the surge in traffic, and as I understand it, virtually our entire network in Iran was wiped out," he added, using it as an example to support his argument that, in intelligence matters, "we're in very bad shape in Iran."

The former U.S. officials who spoke to CNN on Saturday called Perle's testimony "exaggerated," "inaccurate" in some details and "timed to mislead."

The CIA had no comment when contacted by CNN. A Pentagon spokesman said he had no information.

Pentagon requested spy network

One knowledgeable former U.S. official said that in the late 1980s, at the request of the Pentagon, then-CIA director William Casey set up a network of informants in Iran, designed to collect "low-level information on the situation on the ground."

The former official acknowledged the Iranians dismantled the spy network, but rebutted Perle's description of how the Iranians found out about the operation.

Another knowledgeable former U.S. official called the failure in Iran "not a particularly pretty story."

Both former U.S. officials said the United States has been successful in recent years in Iran and cited confirmation by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, of U.S. intelligence on Iranian nuclear weapons-related sites.

The officials also said it is difficult to gather intelligence in Iran, which has an aggressive counter-intelligence program.

The former officials also noted that in the past Iran has executed accused spies, individuals the CIA said it had not heard of.

U.S. pressure on Iran

The Bush administration has been working to build international pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program, arguing that the country is operating a clandestine nuclear weapons program and not limiting its activity to civilian purposes.

Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is designed for civilian energy production only.

Because U.S. intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction turned out to be wrong, some critics of the Bush administration have questioned whether U.S. intelligence on Iran can be trusted.

The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has said it is being "proactive" on intelligence-gathering capabilities in Iran. (Full story)

The United States has said it would work with European countries in their efforts. Britain, France and Germany have been holding talks with Tehran in an attempt to have Iran's uranium-enrichment program permanently frozen.

"Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a very destabilizing force in the world," President Bush said Wednesday.

Perle said he has "grave reservations" about the quality of CIA intelligence in the Persian Gulf, citing what he called "one failure after another," including not predicting either the Iranian revolution or Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

CNN's David Ensor contributed to this report.

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